What do celebs do when lockdown strikes and all their engagements are cancelled? Well, of course, troupers that they are, they grit their teeth and write books. And, as it turns out, some of them are good at it and some aren’t. Of the current crop, the one who is outstandingly good is Dame Eileen Atkins.
In Will She Do? (Virago, £18.99) she makes no attempt to be likable, but fearlessly presents herself as a prickly, chippy, hot-tempered ingrate with a truly warped bitterness against her mother. Guilty of being working class and bringing her daughter up on a council estate in Tottenham, Atkins’s mother sent Eileen to dance classes and made her perform “shows” for working men’s clubs that were designed to appeal to dirty old men. To enhance Baby Eileen’s cuteness she was taught to do “toe taps” – tap dances performed en pointe – which had a disastrous effect on her growing feet. She has suffered from terrible bunions all her life and has to wear sandals.
The book ends when, aged 32, Atkins achieves her breakthrough in The Killing of Sister George, and is finally – a bit late in her view – accepted as the seriously great actress she is. But she is still, she admits, a difficult so-and-so who warns directors from the outset that if they annoy her, she will walk off the set. I hope she does walk – I want her to write more books.
Another difficult customer is Sharon Stone whose The Beauty of Living Twice (Atlantic, £18.99) is an account of her hardscrabble upbringing in hillbilly Pennsylvania, her modelling career and struggles in Hollywood and her eventual success when she crossed her legs so unforgettably in Basic Instinct.
She was considered difficult because, she says, she refused to sleep with her directors or co-stars – “Sex, not just sexuality on-screen, has long been expected in my business.” And then in 2001 she suffered a near-fatal stroke that meant she lost many things – her career, her savings, her marriage, “and a kind of luminous beauty that I hadn’t even realised I’d had.” But she’s a tough cookie with a wonderfully sardonic sense of humour who wastes little time on self-pity.
Joan Collins’s My Unapologetic Diaries (W&N, £20) are as bitchy and gossipy as you could wish, though unfortunately many of the names she gossips about will mean nothing to the reader. The diaries begin in 1989 with her leaving Dynasty and discovering that she will not be paid any residuals, so she needs more work – fast. Everyone in Hollywood claims to have a project for her, but they rarely materialise.
The problem, she believes, is that people still identify her with her Dynasty character, Alexis, and assume she must be difficult to work with. Perish the thought! It is just that she is very determined to get her own way, even if it means sacking agents or falling out with producers. She is very excited when Aaron Spelling casts her in a TV series, and then very annoyed when it turns out he will only pay her $40,000 an episode, which is chicken feed when she has so many houses, clothes, staff and children to maintain. Her life is full of such high hopes and bitter disappointments, but tomorrow is always a new day.
Gyles Brandreth is another workaholic, who happily admits to working seven days a week. In Odd Boy Out (Michael Joseph, £20), his wife asks “Why on earth do you want to write another book?” to which he answers bluntly, “We need the money.” And, to be fair, he makes up with anecdotes and fascinating facts what he lacks in self-analysis in this strange hotchpotch of a life.
Stanley Tucci’s Taste (Fig Tree, £20) is more a cookery book than a memoir, with little to say about his acting career beyond the fact that he’s bored with it and would prefer to spend his time cooking. When he does talk about films, it is mainly in terms of the catering – Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter was the best. Anyway, he knows a lot about food and imparts it with great affection, very slowly.
Joan Bakewell’s The Tick of Two Clocks (Virago, £16.99) is even slower, given that it devotes 170 pages to an account of how she moved house. At one point a famous film star comes to view her old house, but she doesn’t name him and he doesn’t buy it. This is about as exciting as it gets.
Two books by comedians – Bob Mortimer’s And Away... (Gallery, £20) and Billy Connolly’s Windswept and Interesting (Two Roads, £25) – are top bestsellers on audiobook and I can understand why. You really need to hear their voices, especially when they’re telling anecdotes, which they do a lot. On the page they come across as too long-winded and self-indulgent.
Miriam Margolyes’s This Much Is True (John Murray, £20) is also an audiobook bestseller but well worth reading on the page. She is so warm and likable, so full of surprises, that even if you have never heard of her, you would want to read her life story. Buy her book, and Eileen Atkins’s, and forget the rest.
For 15% off any of these titles, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk/XMASbooks